Many happy returns?

10 Oct

Two policies aimed at narrowing the gender gap in earning and caring have recently attracted attention.  The first, shared parental leave, introduced 2 years ago, has been up for assessment of take-up and impact; the second, a government scheme to encourage returners to public sector professions, was unveiled at the end of the summer.

These two eye-catching initiatives share an important underlying feature: they are operating on shoestring budgets.  Shared Parental Leave – which was touted as a response to ‘Edwardian’ patterns of division of labour –  ended up as a scheme where the government’s own estimates of take-up ran at an underwhelming 2-8% of fathers.  In fact, research conducted since its introduction, indicates that take-up may be even lower – one recently quoted survey in the Guardian found fewer than 1 in 1000 employees had taken Shared Parental Leave; it’s reckoned that fewer than 9000 fathers took it up in the year to March 2017.  Set against 695,000 births per year, progress is slow indeed.

So, what are the reasons for low take-up? Shared parental leave is, in fact, a system of transfer of mothers’ maternity leave to fathers, rather than an independent entitlement for men. It therefore excludes many families where women are not entitled to maternity leave.  Next there’s the crucial issue of pay: while many employers provide enhanced maternity leave packages, Shared Parental Leave is paid at a Statutory Maternity Pay levels – currently around £140 per week.  This contrasts with more widely used schemes overseas, where men have an individual entitlement to leave, and payment is set at a generous fraction of actual wages.  As we still live in a world where many fathers are chief wage earners in families, few can afford the loss of income inherent in the British system. Thirdly, there’s the culture thing: taking leave is often viewed as a threat to future promotion prospects, and so men are often reluctant to volunteer for it. The cynic might say, that having seen what happens to many women’s careers, who can blame them? …

This brings us to initiative number two – the government’s new schemes for people who have taken time out of the workplace.   Five million pounds have been pledged to cover three public sector professions: social work, the civil service, and allied health professions (e.g. paramedics, speech therapists and radiographers).  This amounts to 100 places for returners to social work, 50 for civil servants, and 300 returnships for allied health professions.  As somewhere in excess of half a million people work in these areas, this seems something of a drop in the ocean. In the private sector, returnship programmes are becoming more popular, and the government is currently consulting further on these.

These initiatives accompany high employment rates for mothers, and three-quarters of economically inactive mothers say that they would like to return to work.  As ever, mothers of the youngest children are least likely to be employed, so sharing care in the early years is likely to be key to women’s future progression in employment, and also opens up the possibility of men doing more caring work.  With around half of younger fathers saying that they would like a less stressful job, or that they would be prepared to take a pay cut in order to contribute more at home, governments should be thinking creatively about re-balancing the workforce to improve life for parents and children alike.  But creative thinking is not enough. In a climate of wage stagnation and economic uncertainty, statutory pay levels are too low to be a feasible option for many parents contemplating shared leave; and returnships will only be transformational for carers when they are both more widely available, and less associated with the ‘mummy track’.  In fairness to the government, they have made their returner schemes open to men as well as women, but given the current imbalances in who takes time off, this may be a bit cart before horse.

The frustrating thing in all this, is that lack of transformational change is entirely predictable: on Shared Parental Leave, policy experts and civil society groups explained that without dedicated periods of leave for fathers and adequate rates of pay, the scheme would fail to take off; and while returnships are welcome to reincorporate skilled women into work, they will also fail to make major headway if they are not accompanied by wider efforts to prevent mothers from falling out of the workforce in the first place.

Again and again, flexible working arrangements have been found to be vital in retaining parents in the workforce, and to job satisfaction.  While there may be reluctance to commit major resources to these issues, the evidence shows that investment often has good returns. Homeworking and flexible working may raise productivity, and can reduce costs by enhancing staff retention rates. In Scandinavia, it has been found that the more months of leave fathers take, the higher the subsequent earnings for their partners.  The Economist reported this week that a German policy to provide a right to kindergarten places was 60% paid for by the taxes of women returners – and of course these women are likely go on paying taxes throughout their lives.  If our government could actually commit to proper investment in a more equal workforce (as well as in the childcare sector which is currently suffering from under-investment in the flagship 30 hours free childcare scheme) returning to work might generate the kind of monetary returns the economy currently needs.  You could call it a realist’s money tree.

 

 

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Political shorthand – for men?

30 Sep

I’ve been intrigued by a conversation on Twitter about ‘Centrist Mum’.  If you’re politically inclined, you’d have to have been out of the country/under a rock not to have heard of the term ‘Centrist Dad’ which reached peak public awareness during the Labour Party Conference last week.  So who is ‘Centrist Dad’, and why, as in the online conversation, is there no apparent female equivalent?

 

Well, the ‘Centrist Dad’ label grew up in the Corbyn-inspired (younger) Left to describe the kind of (older) man who is not happy about the contemporary direction of the Labour Party.  Not only is he not happy, he takes it upon himself to speak up about it, and to provide Corbyn supporters (especially younger women) with the benefit of his experience.  The essence of ‘Centrist Dad’ is summed up here, where commentators point out that ‘condescension’ is a key element of the brand:  middle-aged men endeavouring to impose their opinions on the young. The article also points out that 25-44 year olds (a key parenting age group) are more likely to vote Labour than older age groups, and that women in this age bracket are even more likely to vote Labour than men.  Meanwhile, older age groups are more likely to vote Tory, and this piece shows how some Labour-voting children in their twenties and thirties converted their more right-wing mothers to Labour in the General Election.  I looked for a Dad equivalent, but have not found one*….

 

So, perhaps ‘Centrist Mum’ hasn’t caught on because Corbyn has a greater female following, and fewer women are in fact on the right of the Labour party (though of course the ‘raw’ Labour vote by gender does not tell us exactly which type of Labour male or female voters voted for….).  I realised that I had a vague memory of a group called ‘Mums for Corbyn’, whose existence would add ballast to the argument that women in the parenting demographic may be more likely to identify as Corbyn supporters.  A brief search established that there is indeed such a group, and that they attended the Momentum World Transformed event, in parallel to the main Labour conference.  A member of Mums for Corbyn is quoted in the Times as saying that the group grew up partly in response to ‘lad culture’ on the Left, to make a space for activists who are also mothers.

 

So we, have Centrist Dad who is at least in part defined through a patronising attitude to younger female Left-wingers, and Mums for Corbyn arising partly as an alternative to lad culture.  Meanwhile we have examples of mothers persuaded to vote Labour by their children, but fathers not so much …. Maybe we have the answer as to why there is no Centrist Mum:  political space is often male-dominated and not infrequently sexist. Why label women if they are not seen as having immutable opinions, or as integral to the culture?

 

 

* there are a couple of pre-election articles on persuading grandparents to vote Labour, presumably because over-60s are the most Conservative-inclined of all

Scrutinising the Scrutineers (again) …

12 Sep

I have to take up my pen again, for one more in my occasional series on the composition of membership of parliamentary Select Committees.  Select Committees in the House of Commons have become increasingly powerful bodies, charged with holding government to account.  Select Committees can produce reports based on inquiries into salient topics, and the government is obliged to respond to their recommendations.  So, it’s clear that who sits on these committees matters.

The divvying up of chairs and seats on Select Committees along party lines, indicates that representation of a range of views is crucial to their business.  But other forms of representation matter too.  We all know that Parliament is slouching only slowly towards gender equality, and that the number of MPs from minority ethnic backgrounds still lags diversity in the general population.  In previous blogs I’ve highlighted issues in the composition of the Women and Equalities Committee, and in the gendered nature of membership of Committees in ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ policy areas.  And I’ve blogged about the Science and Technology Committee’s previous work to identify barriers to women’s advancement in science.  And this particular Committee is why I have to blog again today, for this is the membership of the newly elected Science and Technology Committee:

Chair: Norman Lamb; Members: Bill Grant, Darren Jones, Clive Lewis, Stephen Metcalfe, Neil O’Brien, Graham Stringer, Martin Whitfield.

Notice anything?  Go to the top of the class if you said ‘why are there only 7 members, instead of 10 like in the last parliament?’  –  the answer to this I actually don’t know*; but it makes the thing you are more likely to have noticed, all the more perplexing: there are no women. Back in 2015, a collective eyebrow was raised at the Culture, Media and Sports Committee, which was entirely white and male; today twitter (including scientists) is questioning the maleness of the Science and Technology Committee.

Some might be tempted to argue that as Chairs and members are elected from within parliament, surely it’s a question of the best people being chosen by their peers.  But if expertise in the area is a criterion for membership, then this committee is a little thin, boasting only two science graduates.  Moreover, it’s well-established (some useful studies here) that credibility in science is gendered, with men consistently more highly rated for performance and promotion, due to baseline assumptions and unconscious bias around gender and scientific competence.  Representation really does matter.  In spite of increasing success in university entrance and degrees awarded, women are still under-represented in the higher ranks of science, even in majority-female disciplines like medicine.  And as for the shortage of women in fields like computing and engineering, a lot of effort is being put into raising the profile of senior female role models, and into challenging the culture of sectors, which have all too often got a poor record in promoting women and in wider diversity issues.

In the last parliament, the Science and Technology Committee (then boasting several female members) launched a programme to monitor diversity amongst the witnesses called to appear before the Committee in evidence sessions. This was a welcome recognition of the overwhelmingly white and male profile of the scientific elite, and the need to see beyond the familiar faces, into a more diverse reflection of science professions. Also during the last Parliament, the Good Parliament report, on diversity the House, was published.  It noted that membership of Select Committees was frequently unrepresentative of MPs, let alone the wider population, and suggested that single-sex membership should be prohibited, and that Committees should at least be ‘mindful’ of representativeness in their business.  The government has just failed to take up any of the recommendations made by the Women and Equalities Select Committee, for enhancing female representation in parliament.  It is hard to see today’s announcement of an all-male Science and Technology Committee as anything other than a further leap backward for womankind.

 

*Update: turns out 3 places remain to be filled, although Committee was described as ‘up and running’ this morning – watch this space …

Brexit Bells (with apologies to Godley and Creme)

21 Aug

We should have told EU all we wanted was to have some fun (To have some fun)

But EU wanted us to be the permanent one (The permanent one), yes EU did,

Now when we’re in negotiations or at the back of the bazaar, EU always stops us when we go too far,

We should have known EU’d always keep us waiting for those Brexit bells (Brexit bells)

Those Brexit bells (Brexit bells)

 

Oh we could talk all night but EU won’t understand (Don’t talk to us in French today)

The only words EU wants to hear are ‘Do you take this deal?’ (In French today)

Does the lull in conversation mean the penny’s droppin’?

EU should have known we were sceptically shoppin’

It’s our foolish way of sayin’ EU’s the one stoppin’ those Brexit bells (Brexit bells)

Those Brexit bells (Brexit bells)

And like a square peg in a round hole, we don’t belong here baby

Don’t need a fanfare or a bell peal to tell EU baby

We won’t belong to EU baby …..

 

Oh we say it’s not important but we know what EU’s thinkin’

Cause every time the EU publishes papers we feel EU openness stingin’

In the back of our mind we know it’s the EU who’ll be ringing those Brexit bells (Brexit bells)

Those Brexit bells

We should have told EU all we wanted was to have some fun (Taking back control)

But EU wanted us to be the permanent one (That was yesterday)

Oh we’d do it but imperial measures are worth the pain

We’re gonna to run out of track before we got on the train

Can’t you hear the sound of an economy snappin’ under the strain of those Brexit bells (Brexit bells)

Those Brexit bells (Brexit bells), Brexit bells (Brexit bells)

 

 

 

Innovation goes together with representation

9 Aug

In the wake of the now-infamous Google memo, some have argued that whether or not its author should have been fired, is a hard question to answer, because of the company’s commitment to open discussion.  I’m not sure that this is such a hard question to answer.  The memo proposed that women were intrinsically less attracted to, and less capable of, coding careers than men.  It argued that biology explained the lack of women in technology firms and their comparative absence at senior levels.   If you believe that companies embody a set values and create a working culture – and technology giants with their global missions and highly-designed office spaces, do this more self-consciously than many – then contravening central tenets of that culture has to be problematic at best.

Google aims to bring its products to all, and it has already had to confront its lack of internal diversity publicly.  Publication of its staffing ratios (69% of all workers are male and only 20% of technical jobs are held women; 2% of employees are African American) has led to open discussion of diversity issues, and to pledges to improve the picture.  Google, furthermore, has been embroiled in a potential legal challenge around sex discrimination and the gender pay gap, which the US Department of Labour has described as showing ‘extreme’ disparities.  In this atmosphere, what the firm is seen to do in response to reductionist arguments about who is good at tech, is crucial to its reputation.  Complacency is not an option.  As a former Google employee forcefully argued, publishing a memo that suggests that part of the workforce (the female part) is intrinsically unsuited to its work, and is present for politically correct reasons, has consequences for both the author of the memo, and for the company.  In publishing the memo, the author has made it very challenging to assign collaborative work to him; nor could a manager easily put women in his team, after he has said what he has said. And having put in place the conditions for a ‘textbook hostile working environment’ the only realistic choice was to remove the author from his job. Meanwhile the company has to deal with internal dismay in its workforce, and external reputational damage.

What would the alternative be?  To leave the man in his place and educate him about just how flawed his arguments are? This seems pretty hard in situation where the author overlooks that there are systemic and cultural reasons why women may not be thriving in tech.  As the FT put it today, ‘It is clear from history and social science that bias and inequity do have an effect on the composition of the workforce’ – in other words women and other minorities have been affected by factors in the wider system, not inherent deficiencies in themselves.

Looking beyond Google to the wider tech sector, there is ample evidence that more diverse workforces are possible. The role of women in the history of computing has recently been highlighted in the film ‘Hidden Figures’, and celebration of Ada Lovelace’s pivotal work at the dawn of computer science.  In Russia and Asia, women are employed in greater numbers in technology and engineering than in the USA (or the UK for that matter), again disproving the argument that women are somehow intrinsically less capable of such work. And a Guardian article on Monday showed how Silicon Valley has been less successful in integrating minority ethnic groups, than the technology companies around Washington DC, where 17% of technical workers are black.  In California, technology companies are failing to recruit to reflect either the local Latino population, or the smaller proportion of African Americans. So the West coast tech sector is particularly white and male.  Public commitment to increasing diversity is part of the coda of Google (and its Silicon Valley cohabitants) – it knows that it has a problem and that it needs to be addressed.  The memo has probably made doing so all the more difficult, at least in the short-term.

And the case for Google and others diversifying their workforce isn’t simply to do with equality and social justice. In marketing technological products to us, Google needs to know that they meet consumer requirements.  The papers are full of examples of where this capacity has been limited by a professional monoculture  – e.g. voice recognition software tested by men, which struggles with women’s voices; facial recognition systems which work less well with darker skin tones. And in terms of general innovation there’s a growing literature to show that diverse teams come up with better, more original solutions to problems, than groups of similar people from similar backgrounds.  So diversity is a scientific and commercial necessity, not just a ‘nice to have’ option.  It is somewhat ironic that the kind of collaborative and interactive skills which the memo defined as ‘female’ characteristics, are exactly the ones that tech companies must have in order to innovate and compete….

 

 

 

 

 

Frozen in time

5 Jul

Three stories, one about egg freezing, one about biological clocks, and one about sex robots, have walked into the virtual bar of my mind today, and led to the punchline that our attitudes are frozen in time.  How did we get here?

Well, let’s start with the egg freezing.  New research, based on interviews with women in eight fertility clinics, has concluded that women are embarking on ‘social egg freezing’ (i.e. in scenarios where there is no specific medical need for egg freezing) because of the lack of ‘quality’ men, rather than because of their own career ambitions.  This behaviour is explained through the relatively greater numbers of women in higher education, so that feminism carries ‘costs’.  That’s right, women’s success is the reason behind a lack of marriageable men …

Next up, biological clocks. Through research which has investigated men’s fertility over time, it is finally coming to light that male factors matter in couples’ fertility. As men age, their chances of conception in a given month decline, just as is the case for women.  And a number of risks, such as miscarriage, or incidence of certain conditions in children, are associated with paternal age….

Finally, sex robots. Of all the human needs to which AI and robotics could address themselves, it is sex to which a great deal of human ingenuity and financial investment has flowed. So, where’s my cyber beefcake, I hear female readers ask? Surprisingly, you might have to hold off a bit on that one, until they’ve perfected the sex doll for men, as illustrated by the dead-eyed, pouting creations on display here. A voice on the video says robots could ‘fill a void’ in people’s lives – hmmm … Sex robots may be part of a ‘healing’ revolution, meeting needs among those who have difficulty in finding sexual partners, or they may lead to further real-life problems, through a legitimisation of objectification and de-humanising sexual behaviour.  Which do you think is more likely?

And what has all this got to do with being frozen in time?  Each piece is underpinned by a rather rigid set of assumptions about men and women and how they relate to one another, and an absence of commentary around structural factors which reinforce trends. On egg freezing, there’s the idea that women are ending up preserving fertility this way because their relative success intimidates men. Never mind that even when women study the ‘best’ subjects they still end up earning less than men. Back in the old days, well-educated men would marry less educated women, so why are women so fussy? This rather ignores the fact the men could be upping their domestic skills and active fathering, or that flexible working could provide better solutions for working parents; or that economic trends make it increasingly difficult for anyone to afford the kind of home in which childbearing might take place at the ages of optimal fertility.  And so to the biological clock story, where (as I have argued before) our collective discussion has so completely revolved around the ‘trouble with women’, and their time-limited fertile bodies, that we actually forgot to think about male fertility at all. All the responsibility for timing and preparing for parenthood has been placed on women, as they visibly carry children, while men’s role has gone unremarked.  And yet, it does matter, as research has shown. As for sex robots, the stereotyping is all the more predictable.  The market for meeting heterosexual men’s desires is visible all around us, from everyday advertising to pornography. Anything else comes second.

In spite of some real progress, the three stories show that we’re still some way from gender equality in matters of sex and procreation. As long as our technological fixes are guided by gender roles which seem frozen in time, with women as sex robots who one day wake up and take all the responsibility for decisions around childbearing and childrearing, while men consume their choices and remain comparatively untouched by the consequences, we might not get much further.  Maybe it’s time to thaw things out – it could get messy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brexit Anniversary

22 Jun

If a week is a long time in politics, then the last year seems almost like a decade – so many seismic events and unexpected twists and turns. And somehow, here we are, one year on from the EU referendum, a time to reflect on what has happened …

As chance would have it, last year, on the day after the referendum, I was booked on the train to Scotland.  I’d forced myself to go to bed at 2 a.m., when the first signs that Leave might swing it, had begun to emerge.  It was still a surprise to find that that was what had happened, as I scrambled to get the last of my stuff together, and headed out the door later that morning.  The atmosphere on the train was unusual – a lot of thrown-together people looking slightly shell-shocked and talking in hushed tones into their mobile phones.   As we powered through the country, there were patches of flags from either side of the debate – the mood seemed one of surprise.  The news was still sinking in.

When I eventually got to Edinburgh, my first stop was the pub.  Scots were juggling the results of two successive referenda – one over independence from the UK, one over membership of the EU. I got talking with a bunch of people having an after-work pint and chewing over the day’s news.  They were a mix of Yes and No voters in the Scottish referendum, but all said then, in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, that given a choice, they would vote to leave the UK in any second referendum, and seek Scottish membership of the EU.  Unlike in England, the subject of Ireland, the border and the peace process came up quite soon in conversation.  My unrepresentative little vox pop confirmed a picture of urban Scotland as firm Remain territory. I’ve often wondered if the people I met have changed their minds meanwhile, as the falling oil price and political turbulence in the year since, has seen support for a second Scottish referendum apparently diminish, and a desire for stability (ha!) become perhaps stronger.

What else has changed in the year since, concerning Brexit? In some ways remarkably little – in spite of the triggering of Article 50 and the recent snap election, we are only slightly further on in our progress towards exit.  When thinking about what will happen with reciprocal rights for UK and EU citizens living in each other’s countries, or overall freedom of movement, or being in the Single Market, I’m often reminded of that round in the QI panel show, where they ask an obscure question, and all the contestants wave a paddle in the air, signifying that ‘Nobody Knows’…. The form of Brexit we will eventually experience remains up in the air, and the complexities of disentangling ourselves from laws, supply chains and regulations often seem to be intensifying rather than resolving.

In other ways, things have changed quite a bit – the vote to leave has led to a greater understanding of divisions and inequalities in the UK, with analysis of voting behaviour showing fault lines between urban and rural populations, highly educated people and school leavers, older and younger voters.   UKIP is basically a spent force, and the recent election, paradoxically perhaps, heralded a return to two-party politics, as the Brexit vote made for a complex set of interactions with broader party allegiances. In the snap election, Labour capitalised on frustration with the consequences of social inequalities, while the Conservatives emphasised the importance of leadership on Brexit, in an electoral strategy which imploded around the failure of leadership demonstrated in the campaign. They won the election, but lost their majority, and are now all too aware of issues around Ireland and Brexit…

One year on, we have election winners who have lost, and losers who scent victory next time – which could well be considerably sooner than anticipated by the Fixed-Term Parliament Act.  Theresa May has just been  in Brussels for a dinner with the European Council, where she was looking to outline Britain’s negotiating position in more detail.  It seems that she may be aiming for Brexit a la carte. Funnily enough, we don’t have a ready English phrase for that – unless perhaps it’s cherry-picking – which is something we need Eastern European seasonal migrants to do …. There’s no chance of an all-you-can-eat buffet of options on Brexit terms, so can we hold out for some Chef’s specials? Brexit is often discussed in terms of having our cake and eating it, but we have yet to discover what proof of pudding is in our eating ….

 

 

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